Mourning John Lewis — Celebrating His Life

John Robert Lewis
Laid to Rest on July 30, 2020

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One might have been able to hear church bells ringing this morning, eighty times,
in cities and towns across America, to pay homage to his eighty years of life
.

Later, the headline read, “Three living presidents came together to honor Congressman John Lewis at his funeral today in Atlanta, Georgia.” Yes, three presidents spoke words of mourning, and celebration today — President George W. Bush, President William J Clinton, President Barak Obama. President Jimmy Carter sent his words to be read.
So four living United States Presidents honored John Lewis today. A fifth living United States President did not.

Eloquent words were spoken by so many today at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which has been known best because of its most famous pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We heard stories, memories, words marked with laughter and tears from friends and family members of John Lewis — Rev. Dr. Bernice King, an activist and Martin Luther King Jr.‘s daughter, civil rights pioneer Xernona Clayton, James Lawson,   an activist, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, our three living presidents and many others.

Years later, when I was elected a U.S. Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made. And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.
— President Barak Obama


Americans live in a country that is better today because of John Lewis. John always looked outward, not inward. He always thought of others. He always believed in preaching the gospel, in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope. John Lewis believed in the Lord. He believed in humanity, and he believed in America.
— President George W. Bush


John always kept walking to reach the beloved community. He got into a lot of good trouble along the way, but let’s not forget, he developed an absolutely uncanny ability to heal troubled waters. When he could have been angry and determined to cancel his adversaries, he tried to get converts instead. He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist. He lived by the faith and promise of St. Paul: “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not lose heart.” He never lost heart. He fought the good fight, he kept the faith, but we got our last letter from him today on the pages of the New York Times. Keep moving. It is so fitting on the day of his service, he leaves us our marching orders: Keep moving.

John Lewis was many things, but he was a man, a friend and sunshine in the storm, a friend who would walk the stony road that he asked you to walk, that would brave the chastening rods he asked you to be whipped by, always keeping his eyes on the prize, always believing none of us would be free until all of us are equal. I just loved him. I always will. And I’m so grateful that he stayed true to form. He’s gone up yonder and left us with marching orders. I suggest since he’s close enough to God to keep his eye on the sparrow and on us, we salute, suit up and march on.
— President Bill Clinton


We come with a flag flown over the Capitol the night that John passed. When this flag flew there, it said goodbye. It waved goodbye to John. Our friend, our mentor, our colleague. This beautiful man that we all had the privilege of serving with.
— Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

That’s when I cried, as I did many times during the four hours I watched this morning, bearing witness to his life, holding vigil at his glag-draped casket I had watched all week. There is no doubt that moving words were uttered today in that holy place where Beloved Community gathered to mourn John Lewis, but none were more full of heart that the words of Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock:

We have come to say goodbye to our friend in these difficult days. Come on, let the nation celebrate, let the angels rejoice … John Lewis, the boy from Troy, the conscience of the Congress. His deeds etched into eternity, he loved America until America learned to love him back.

From 1 Corinthians 15:51-55
Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 

From Revelation 14: 12-13
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. 
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds will follow them.”

From the works of William Shakespeare
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

 

I cried today, but I laughed a lot, too. I sang a little and — though I did not rise to my feet to dance in celebration of his life well-lived — I still celebrated more than I mourned, because that’s what John Lewis would do. In the end I laughed out loud at the image of mourners dancing their way out of the sanctuary, following the casket, and being glad that John Lewis loved dancing to the music of “Happy Feet!”

Why don’t we all dance our way to Beloved Community!

May God make it so!

Rest in Peace, John Lewis. Rest in Celebration. We got this!

Hope and the Soul’s Struggle

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Struggles abound in this unwelcome COVID19 season we are experiencing. Most of us are touched by this virus in some way. We have struggled with so many life changes. I have watched strugglers of the soul work through the illness, others deal with the suffering and death of a friend or family member, often being unable to be with them at their death. Some parents are struggling with decisions affecting school for their children and teachers fear they will be unable to keep their students (and themselves) safe. Others long to see loved they have not seen in months of social distancing.

My circle of friends and family are feeling short on hope while they experience struggles of the soul. Yet, Herman Melville asserts that “Hope is the struggle of the soul.” I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. Perhaps hope gives us the courage we need to move boldly and full of hope into the place where the soul struggles, moving there with the assurance that the hope that led us there will also lead us to healing.

As I look closer at Melville’s words, I begin to see and understand that hope’s struggle eventually empowers us to break loose from the perishable things we hold on to — our wealth, our home, our “things” like cars, boats, RVs, whatever “things” we cherish. Looking at what this virus could bring, knowing that we are facing real life and death situations, cannot help but move our souls to throw off the things that don’t seem so critical anymore — perishable things we do not need. This thought prompts me to look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors . . .

— 1 Peter 1:18-19 (New International Version)

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

— 1 Corinthians 15:54 (New International Version)

How do we get there? How do we get through the soul struggles that can bring us to our knees?

I don’t think there is a well developed plan or a series of definite steps to take. The path, the plan, will be unique to each struggler. But the soul struggles I have felt throughout my life have taught me to place hope where hope must be: in Comforter Spirit who hovers over me with her sheltering wings; in the Christ who lives in and through me guiding me as a good shepherd and empowering me to walk with courage in his footsteps; in the Eternal God who holds before me, always, my own eternity.

This is what is available to you as well as you lean into hope’s struggle of the soul and break loose from things that are not important as you bear witness to your own eternity.

May God make it so.

As you leave these words and move with hope into your soul struggles,

May the God of hope go with you and fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

— Romans 15:13 (New International Version)

Amen.

I hope you can spend a few minutes in prayer and contemplation as you watch this beautiful, comforting music video, “Still with Thee,” with text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Supermoons and Sacred Pauses

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What’s all this about supermoons and sacred pauses?

You might legitimately ask that question!

Well, this stream of thought began for me when astrological experts said that the Super Pink Moon that appeared on April 7th would be the “most super” of all supermoons this year. They also said that the moon would not be pink at all.

Before you get your hopes up, this “Super Pink Moon” won’t actually look “super pink”—or any hue of pink, really. The Moon will be its usual golden color near the horizon and fade to a bright white as it glides overhead.

— The Old Farmer’s Almanac (https://www.almanac.com/content/full-moon-april)

That information did not please me at all. I had really looked forward to seeing a pink moon. The Farmer’s Almanac — always a reliable source of information since its founding in 1792 — described what the April 7th moon would look like.

It is not to be missed — The Super Pink Moon: The Biggest and Brightest Supermoon of the Year! April’s full Moon will be closer to Earth than any other supermoon in the series. It will be the biggest and brightest full Moon of 2020! How big and how bright, exactly? On average, supermoons are about 7% bigger and about 15% brighter than a typical full Moon.

There you have it, from every farmer’s most tried and tested source on all things earth! But in addition to the disappointment that this supermoon would not be pink in any way, the most devastating disappointment of all was that on April 7, 2020, Macon, Georgia was completely overcast! For all gazing intentions, there was no moon at all that night, not a pink moon and not even a white one. Like other Middle Georgia folk, I missed the whole thing, the entire phenomenally astounding sight!

Other people in other places saw it, though, in all its splendor. They took pictures, some of which looked like a round, dull white ball in the sky. But others — including NASA of course — posted pictures of a brilliant, unforgettable moon. And one person took a stunning picture of this supermoon that was brilliant white and surrounded by an ethereal pink ring! And they said it would definitely not be pink!

The pink-ringed moon picture made me very happy! It was the emotional boost I needed in a time of pandemic isolation. In the midst of such a troubling and fear-filled time when all over the earth, a supervirus was touching people with upheaval, sickness and death, it was a very opportune time for an uplifting supermoon. Still, I wonder why it even mattered to me or anyone else. After all, moons rise and fall every single day. Even supermoons rise on a predictable astrological schedule.

So maybe my lesson here is acknowledging that I seldom go out at night just to gaze at the moon. When I notice a moon in passing, it’s as if I’m thinking, “So what! It’s just another moon!” And yet, the moon might be in the night sky just to remind me that the moon is the Creator’s metaphor for something that is everlasting, permanent and yet changing. I actually do look to the sky once in a while and see a new sliver of a moon on a cloudless night or a full moon glowing brightly enough to light my path. Ever so often, I’m thrilled by the discovery, as though I were seeing it for the first time.

Instead of ignoring a moon that appears most every night, perhaps moon gazing can be a spiritual moment that helps me know that at least something in my life is everlasting, that the promises of God are ever near, that my faith can light my path, that, as the Psalmist writes, the moon is eternal, a “faithful witness in the sky!”

It will be as eternal as the moon,
    my faithful witness in the sky!

— Psalm 89:37 NLT

Moon gazing can also be my time of spiritual comfort as I recall the words of the prophet Isaiah, who speaks of the rising of the sun and the moon as a part of binding up those who are injured and healing the wounds of God’s people.

Moreover the light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of seven days, on the day when the Lord binds up the injuries of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow.

— Isaiah 30:26 NRSV

At the end of the day, we can know this: gazing at the moon can remind us of the magnificent smallness of humanity and the overwhelming magnificence of God. The Psalmist invites us to marvel at how we dearly we are prized by God in a Psalm that lifts up both Divine majesty and human dignity, unequivocally declaring that God cares for me, and that God cares for you.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens . . .

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

— Psalm 8:1, 3-9 NRSV

The last word in my story On this day is that the moon, the sun, the stars — all created things — are not merely created, they are God-created, and God’s creation may very well be worth a few extra moments of gazing into night’s quiet pauses — praying and praising, reflecting and listening. Listening for the voice of God. Listening for the sigh of the soul!

I love the photo of that moon surrounded by a pink circle of reflected light, because it was for me a divine and holy light. I know that it was divine and holy, because it abruptly stopped me. Just a picture it was, not the real moon that I might have seen in my night sky. Yet, it took on the power of my faith that has always assured me that God can be found in all things, simple or sacred, ordinary or holy.

My faith has taught me that, more times than not, a very ordinary thing — an ordinary act or an ordinary moment — can suddenly and surprisingly become holy. Just that one ethereal moon captured in a commonplace photograph silenced me, calmed me, reached into my soul and divinely interrupted me for a much needed sacred pause.

Maybe that’s the meaning of the words we often say about a picture being worth a thousand words. As for me, I will just say thanks be to God for beckoning me to night’s quiet pauses, sacred pauses that I needed so deeply.

 

 

Juneteenth 2020 — Oh Freedom!

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Today may be a Juneteenth like no other.

Juneteenth is a celebration. It’s not solemn, it’s filled with joy and pageantry. It’s not a funeral. But 2020 Juneteenth is uncomfortably juxtaposed with police violence against Black people, protesters in cities all over the nation and funerals — too many funerals.

A Bit of History . . . 

Juneteenth is one of America’s oldest holidays and is observed each year on June 19 to mark the official end of slavery in the United States. The day has long been celebrated by black Americans as a symbol of their long-awaited emancipation. But the story behind the holiday starts 155 years ago today in Galveston, Texas.

On June 19, 1865, Union troops led by General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to break the news to the last remaining Confederate sympathizers that they had lost the Civil War and that all slaves must be freed. The Union general read aloud to the residents of Galveston:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.

The newly freed slaves celebrated emancipation with prayer, feasting, song, and dance, and the following year, the first official Juneteenth celebration was born. But the importance of Juneteenth is that it is rooted in a long history of struggle for freedom and then perhaps the greater struggle to maintain freedom in the face of the enormous repression that was to come.

The Struggle for Freedom Continued

7DC48528-34CF-47FA-9272-ED91E800C437It turned out that being free did not mean being being treated with respect. Yes, it was the true end of the Civil War, but it was also the beginning of Reconstruction, a time that was supposed to be very happy and hopeful. Yet the period of Reconstruction became a miserable time for freed Black people because Reconstruction became part of the redemption of the South. As such, it set out to move African Americans to indentured servitude. While President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in his Jan. 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation, rebellious Confederate strongholds dotted across the South delayed the widespread implementation.

The South would not hear of the end of slavery, and landowners moved heaven and earth to make sure they had plenty of indentured servants. They were determined to continue the ostentatious lifestyle that they believed was their right and their legacy. They were resolute in their quest to maintain their master/servant status.

Still Today, Elusive Freedom

Juneteenth has been “passed down” through black communities since 1866, but in this year — 2020 — this nation seems to be at the height of a modern-day civil rights movement. My friend says, “2020 is the year of reset!” People throughout this nation of every race and creed hope beyond hope the 2020 will go even beyond “reset” to reconciliation, transformation and rebirth. So that every person is free, respected and cherished as a part of beloved community.

B8EBCA53-AF97-42DD-AA97-BAB122368430The cruel and violent death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer might mean that this year Juneteenth may not be only about festivals, parades and cookouts. It may well be somewhat of a silent, reflective vigil for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Caine Van Pelt, Michael Thomas, Lewis Ruffin, Kamal Flowers, Momodou Lamin Sisay, Ruben Smith, Modesto Reyes . . . and the list could continue.

It is a list of tragedy and horror. It is a list that is a stain that will ever remain on this nation, an indelible mark of shame. It is a list of names we must never forget. So in your commemoration of Juneteenth today, honor those names, pray for their mourning families, and pray that you will confront racial injustice with an unshakeable resolve.

Juneteenth was meant to be a celebration, although many people might not be able to celebrate today. Heartbreak and horror have a tendency to override celebration and joy. Even with hearts broken, I hope we will find in our hearts even a tiny desire to celebrate this day that was, and is, all about freedom.

May the change that comes from the “2020 movement for racial justice” cause us to celebrate, not mourn, every time Juneteenth comes around — today and forevermore. And may each of us and all of us — a people of God’s creation — witness the rebirth of a nation where every person lives under a worldwide canopy of justice, peace, equality, respect and freedom.

May God make it so through us. Amen.


Celebrate, or mourn, today as you spend a few moments watching this moving and poignant video, “Oh Freedom.”

This Liminal Time

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liminal

in American English
(ˈlɪmɪnəl ; ˈlaɪmɪnəl )

ADJECTIVE

1.  Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.

2.  At a boundary or transitional point between two conditions, stages in a process, ways of life, etc.

“Liminal” used in a sentence: We are in a transitional and liminal time: this makes everything unsettled and awkward, and most of us feel tremendous unrest and a sense of urgency.


I choose to mark this particular time in history as a liminal time that demands my courage to stand — to stand in solidarity with every person who is demanding an end to racial injustice. I cannot choose my partners in this struggle. Instead, I have to accept those that appear in my life, bringing with them a determined will to stand for justice.

I must understand that liminal time does not last forever. Liminal time is a place of transition, a liminal stage between justice and oppression, between life and death. So my choices and yours in this liminal time might very well affect what’s going on in the streets of American cities, in police precincts in every community and rural hamlet, in the halls of Congress and in the White House, in our hearts and in the hearts of those we could see as our “enemies.“

CB60C28A-A33B-4386-9B35-C3DC950FC905Here is where I must focus. My heart must long for an end to injustice. So must yours, because God’s heart grieves over the mayhem in our streets and the violence that has its way when a white police officer murders a black man or woman, even a black child.

You and I must yearn for an end to racial injustice — any kind of injustice and oppression — because God’s heart yearns to see us living in holy unity as brothers and sisters.

These days have dramatically shown us our liminal time, and it is NOW.

I have a strong sense that this liminal time has brought the widespread unrest we are witnessing, and that unrest emerges directly from a deep desire for change and transformation. It must be now!

Those of us who remember, know that the Civil Rights Movement came to its boiling point when every marcher, every protester, every non-violent activist and every violent one knew when their liminal time had come. Some people, of course, did not like that time at all, but even those who resisted that movement towards justice knew in their hearts that it was the liminal time, the time of NOW.

The fight was fought by people who spoke and marched, prayed and worshipped, who resisted and stood their ground, who preached and sang their freedom songs. Ah, how those songs of the civil rights movement helped motivate people of all ages and races, from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists and Freedom Riders to the thousands who marched on Washington, Selma, and Montgomery!

Yet not one person — Civil Rights leader or non-violent protester — could achieve civil rights alone. It required persons living in the poorest neighborhoods and their affluent neighbors across town. It took white folk and black folk, protestors and preachers, eloquent advocates and those who fought silently, lawyers and congresspeople and attorneys general and presidents. It required a community in solidarity. In fact, during the Civil Rights Movement, the creation of community was the quintessential coming-of-age story for Black people. 

Of that historically significant time, Father Richard Rohr writes this:

It was the particular time in history when nonviolent initiatives seeded with contemplative worship practices became acts of public theology and activism. You see, activism and contemplation are not functional opposites. Rather, contemplation is the heart’s reflective activity that is always seeking the spiritual balance between individual piety and communal justice-seeking.

Who could have predicted that America’s apartheid would fall as decisively as the walls of Jericho, when the people marched around the bastions of power carrying little more than their faith and resolve? How audacious it was to take just the remnants of a chattel community, the vague memories of mother Africa, and a desperate need to be free, and translate those wisps into a liberating vision of community. The idea of a beloved community emerged from the deeply contemplative activities of a besieged people — the people of the Civil Rights movement.
— Fr. Richard Rohr

One would think that such a movement that was so powerful, so eloquent and so determined would see its dream become reality, and that such a stunning reality would last forever. So that every person, from that time to this, would live as beneficiaries of beloved community. But here we are in another liminal space of racial indignity, cities in chaos and families mourning the death of their loved ones in Minnesota, in Georgia, in Kentucky and beyond. We did not really believe we would be in this time and space, a time that would demand a civil rights movement of its own.

The in-between liminal spaces of Scripture are pregnant with God’s transformational possibilities:

Noah and his family rebuilding the world after the flood; Abraham holding the knife above Isaac; Jacob’s struggle with the angel; Joseph in the pit; Moses and the Israelites at the edge of the Reed Sea; Israel in the wilderness; Joshua crossing the Jordan; Jesus suffering on the tree; the women at His tomb; the disciples waiting in Jerusalem.

Scripture indeed is fraught with liminal moments – moments of imminent expectation, infused with both hope and doubt — that lead to transformation and change. So change involves tension, and those of us who are longing for a paradigm shift that insists on justice, know that tension all too well.

Betwixt and Between — neither here nor there. It would be safe to say that this liminal time is mostly uncomfortable and confusing. Liminal time is the time between what was and what will be. And not one of us can predict what will be, either in this struggle against injustice or in the uncertain waxing and waning of the deadly coronavirus. The convergence of virus and death and sickness and distancing with racial injustice, violence and protest is almost too much uncertainty for us to navigate.

In the end, I want to believe that this liminal time and every liminal space is the dwelling place of God, the place where God meets us and says, “I will never leave you or forsake you . . . And remember, the Spirit of the Lord is upon you and has anointed you to announce Good News to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned and renewed sight for the blind, to release those who have been oppressed. [my paraphrase]

Even in our current time of disconcerting fluid borders, God is with us in this liminal time. God is inseparably bound with us in this moment, and it is in this liminal space where heaven and earth, life and death, joy and sorrow, ecstasy and despair, sleeping and waking, justice and injustice, commingle.

So here’s my challenge to myself and to all of us. What if we choose to experience this liminal time, this uncomfortable now, as a time for insisting upon full solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters? What if we choose to make this particular time — with all of its pandemic and death, chaos and destruction, fire and protest, upheaval and violence as if no lives matter — a liminal time for construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation? What if you and I choose to hold hands and march on in solidarity and community until we reach the mountaintop where injustice is no more?

I want to. Do you?

 

Holy Anger!

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Holy Anger! What does it mean for us as followers of the Prince of Peace?

I have learned to use my anger for good . . .
Without it, we would not be motivated to rise to a challenge.
It is an energy that compels us to define what is just and unjust.
—-
Gandhi

Holy Anger! What in the world does holy anger mean for me?

We can begin to understand holy anger in the context of the present reality — the very real truth that so many of us are angry. After all, we saw with our own eyes a video of a white police officer with his knee on the neck of a black man. After all, we heard the man’s plea for mercy as he cried out, “I can’t breathe!” How could we not be angry? And shocked? And filled with grief? What we saw on a street in Minneapolis was a striking portrait of the kind of racial injustice and oppression that black people have suffered throughout history, now fully visible to us in the year of our Lord, 2020.

The tragic moments — 8 minutes and 46 seconds — are burned in our memories by the righteous fire of everything that is so wrong about George Floyd’s life slipping away, his breathing becoming more and more labored as the minutes moved on. I suggest that we who are God’s people are appropriately seething with holy anger.

Still, we seek an answer to the question, “What must we do with our holy anger?“ As we follow the way of Christ, what must we do to “overturn the tables of the money changers?” (Matthew 21:12-13) What do we do with our holy anger when we recall the anger of Jesus who threw tables to the ground and said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Perhaps, like me, you have been dealing with the struggle of reconciling your heart’s faith with the anger you hold in your heart right now. Dr. Barbara Holmes describes our dilemma well and gives us a construct that is true to our faith.

We all need a way to channel and reconcile our anger with our faith. . . . A theology of anger [for communities under siege] assumes that anger as a response to injustice is spiritually healthy.

Dr. Holmes suggests that, even though we serve a God of love, a theology of anger can wake us up and ask us to stand firmly on the holy ground of “justice for all.” Indeed, our holy anger can wake us up to the reality of racial oppression, of white privilege and of the violent brutality of systemic racism in our nation. Perhaps our holy anger will compel us to throw off the chains of weak resignation, as well as our persistent denial of the high cost of racial injustice. Perhaps our holy anger can empower us to transform our despair into compassionate action that transforms racial injustice and oppression. Perhaps we could even be labeled “justice-seeking folks.”

During a 2016 demonstration in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after the police shot an unarmed black man, Pastor Danny Givens publicly and peacefully challenged the Governor of Minnesota as he shouted these words into a microphone:

Your people keep killing my people. You keep telling me that you are going to do something. I just want you to put some action on it, put some respect on our people’s names . . . This isn’t black anger. This is black grief! [1]

How do we even begin to separate our anger from our grief? Pastor Danny Givens spoke in 2016. Understand that racial violence did not suddenly take over our community in 2020. It was a plague hovering over us in 2016, and before that — centuries of white supremacy, systemic brutality, lynchings and lashings, system-sanctioned murders. People of God, how can we not be angry?

I wonder how our holy anger will move us to holy action. I wonder where our holy anger will lead us with the mandate of ending racial injustice and creating Beloved Community. I am a long-time member of the Alliance of Baptists. Through many years, I have been proud of their broad influence against injustice and oppression. Today I am particularly proud of their recent statement on racism in the United States and I share portions of it here.

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A Joint Statement on Racism in the United States
from the The Alliance of Baptists,
Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America – Bautistas por la Paz,
and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
June 9, 2020

We have seen with dismay, pain and horror the destructive mark of racism on the soul of the U.S. Throughout our history, racism being the backbone of this nation’s development and unjust enrichment of many has become the choking source of black communities and people of color affecting every aspect of our collective life. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed these racial inequities that hurt black and brown communities by hindering their access to health but also their development, freedom, and pursuit of happiness. George Floyd’s words became prophetic for as a nation, we can’t breathe anymore.

The brutal and disturbing deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade have shaken our nation to its soul and painfully demonstrated the daily danger of being black in this nation . . .

The undersigned organizations publicly denounce the murder of George Floyd, its race-related violence, including the police brutality shown, and demand that each one of the four police officers involved in his death face justice for all engaged in disdaining the worth of this man as a human being and as a citizen. As peacemakers, we painfully recognize the sinful prejudice ingrained in our hearts, the violent actions deflecting the affirmation of justice, and the biased attitudes justifying hurting other human beings just because of the color of their skin and commit ourselves to dismantle racial oppression however we can . . .

We acknowledge our present time is difficult. We have become overwhelmed with a pandemic death toll surpassing 100,000 deaths, the desperation of millions unemployed, and the continuous disregard of black human lives. While these successive “pangs of birth,” can madden us, as peacemakers, it is essential to remember that grace and forgiveness heal our hearts, that we belong to each other (Rom 12:4-5) and that justice will be done for we seek it (Matt. 6:33). Under this yoke of darkness our actions today will define the future we want to build. We ask the Spirit to break us free and help us breathe.*

Amen! I can enthusiastically sign this transformational statement, with my commitment to respond to our beckoning God, to follow Christ in the way of peace, to breathe in the Spirit’s wind and fire, to use my holy anger against evil oppression. For me, the task of dismantling racial oppression is a holy calling that demands decisive action motivated by my holy anger.

May the holy anger in my soul abide with the holy peace in my heart, and may both compel and empower me to do the holy work of transforming injustice.

May God make it so for all of us and each of us. Amen.

 

*Please read the full statement from the Alliance of Baptists that includes five points that call for justice HERE.

 
[1] Morgan Winsor and Julia Jacobo, “Pastor Shouts at Governor: ‘This Is Black Grief,’ After Police Shooting of Minnesota Man,” ABC News (July 7, 2016). Available at http://abcnews.go.com/US/pastor-challenges-minnesota-gov-put-action-cop-shooting/story?id=40406186

 

 

 

Transforming Injustice: A Series of Watercolor Paintings

Narrative on the Watercolor Series: Transforming Injustice!

Kathy Manis Findley
June 7, 2020

To view the first watercolor in the Transforming Injustice! Series, click here:

Transforming Injustice! is a watercolor art series that began as a response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. It seeks to the depict the emotions surrounding these murders, as well as the resulting protests in cities across the nation. The art will not end there, for the anger, pain and grief of thousands of protesters may have been sparked by the image of George Floyd being asphyxiated by the knee of a law enforcement officer, but that spark is only small ember compared to the fires of racial injustice that have burned throughout our history.

Watercolor #1 in the Transforming Injustice! series is entitled, “I Can’t Breathe!”

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Watercolor #1 in the Transforming Injustice! series: “I Can’t Breathe!”

The art series will begin with the death of George Floyd, but each watercolor that follows will seek to evoke emotions around the racial injustice and systemic racism that has been the fabric of life for centuries. We cannot simply protest against racial injustice, or pray for its end, or demand that our systems change. The evil depth of the racial injustice in our world must be transformed, both within each individual heart and within the systems that have continually perpetuated racial division and hate.
May our God, and the Gods of all people, inspire us to discover the ways through which each of us might begin the transformation.

One of the ways I have committed to work for transformation is through watercolor art and narrative, in hopes that at least one person will have an emotional response to the art that inspires and calls out to the person, “Are you transforming injustice? Will you transform injustice?” 

The Inspiration Behind the Transforming Injustice! Series

My cousin Nick, who has forever been a modern mystic and a deep thinker, sent me the following words this morning. He pondered, as he often does, and found this buried deep in his spirit.

What I Was Thinking This Morning______________________nick talantis

Over 100,000 dead. And there’s one more.
Not the corona. A copper’s knee. 

I can’t breathe.

It’s happened too many times to count.
I can’t breathe.

It happens in the east.
I can’t breathe.

It happens in the west.
I can’t breathe.

It happens in the south.
I can’t breathe.

It happens in the north.
I can’t breathe.

The white man is keeping the black man down.
I can’t breathe.

A badge of pride gone to shame.
I can’t breathe.

Where is the hope we can overcome?
I can’t breathe.

Hope is lost in the fire of anger.
I can’t breathe.

How does sanity prevail?
I can’t breathe.

Eye for eye — no — it’s not the way.
I can’t breathe.

When the fire dies down.
Take a breath.

When you are face to face.
Take a breath.

When you sit together.
Take a breath.

Remember Martin’s way. Remember, when we sit in peace, breathing.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; 
only love can do that.

Martin said that.

A riot is the language of the unheard.

Martin said that.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin said that.

And I believe him.
I say we have to get back to non-violence. We have to kneel, in the face of adversity.

We have to have equality.
Equality for every man, every woman, every race, every one.

We are all the same.
We all have the right to breathe.

Amen, cousin! May the very breath of the Spirit make it so through us.

Again this morning, my family rose up in defiance of injustice. I received these words from my brother, Andrew.

How about we dispense with the “law and order” approach–which we’ve tried over and over–and try a little “liberty and justice for all”–especially for African Americans, who have endured four centuries of White Supremacy.

All of this, by the way, is again happening in what White Evangelicals call “Christian America.” But anyone who thinks we are a Christian nation simply hasn’t taken a long, hard look at our history and the legacy of the slave ship, the auction block, the overseer’s whip, and the lynching tree. In the late nineteenth century, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Reverdy Ransom wrote that, despite being faithful Christians and loyal Americans, blacks had never gotten much justice out of Christian America. Not even Jesus had been able to break the color line. Then he said: “If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he must have wept for America an ocean of tears.”

OK, White America, isn’t it high time we actually do something about the problem we created.  We built the structures of White Supremacy; it’s time we worked to dismantle those structures.

And since the edifice of White Supremacy was built with the blessing of white Christian churches, it is only right that white Christians get out there en masse and say, “Open Season on African Americans is hereby closed forever.” Civil rights activist Ella Baker’s famous slogan is just as powerful and true as they were in the 1960s:  “Those who believe in freedom can never rest until the death of a black mother’s son is as important as the death of a white mother’s son.”

Finally, my friend and kidney donor, Greg Adams offers this insightful perspective on the murder of George Floyd:

Many of us have wondered what is different about this moment in our long history of racial injustice. The death of George Floyd is another terrible example of a death of an unarmed African-American brought about by those responsible for protecting all of us from violence. It is tragically not unique—we have heard and seen too many other terrible examples. So why has this death led to nationwide, and even worldwide, protests? 

I would offer this perspective to the mix as one of the many factors making this time different:

George Floyd’s death happened in slow-motion with witnesses and videotaping. He begged for his life, and public witnesses begged for his life. Meanwhile, the officer with the knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck acted with impunity and no concern for Mr. Floyd or the fact that his actions were being witnessed and recorded. He believed he could do as he pleased and showed no concern for the consequences. He acted as if Mr. Floyd’s life mattered little, if at all. While the officer continued his abuse of Mr. Floyd despite Mr. Floyd being handcuffed and on the ground, three other police officers stood by and offered no help to Mr. Floyd. They saw the knee on the neck, they heard the pleas for help from Mr. Floyd and the witnesses, and they did nothing to stop the violence. Their silence and inaction communicated a callous disregard for Mr. Floyd’s mistreatment, suffering, and ultimately his life. They were more loyal to their fellow officer and his cruelty than to the basic humanity of Mr. Floyd. 

The American people, and the people of the world, has seen this pattern at the highest levels for the last three and a half years during the Trump presidency. Repeatedly, Mr. Trump has acted with impunity as he words, actions, and policies have abused so many and so much: migrant children and their families, regular citizens, public servants, norms and values of decency and honor, respect for honesty and the rule of law. This is, tragically, just a partial list. While Mr. Trump has used his position of power and influence to abuse individuals, families, communities, states, organizations, and systems designed to protect good government, elected officials of his own party have almost universally done nothing to protect the targets of his abuse. Their silence and inaction have communicated a callous disregard for the mistreatment and suffering caused by Mr. Trump. They have been more loyal to Mr. Trump and his cruelty than to the basic humanity of anyone who finds themselves the recipient of Mr. Trump’s abuse. 

We know quite a bit about bullies. We know that they are ultimately only successful if bystanders offer their support, and this support can be in the form of silence. Without the active or silent consent of the bystanders, the bully-victim cycle falls apart and the bully is marginalized and disempowered. 

An increasing number and an increasing diversity of Americans are sick of it. We are sick of the impunity of those in power who abuse others and of those who stand by silently and watch the suffering, destruction, and deaths that follow.  More and more of us recognize that Mr. Trump’s abuses and the knee in the neck of Mr. Floyd are not just individual moral failures—they are the failures of the system. A failure of us. And if this is true, then when we change, we can change the system. 

It’s coming and it’s happening. And if we keep the faith, and keep working, and vote in November, we will thankfully have more to celebrate and less to protest against.

Thank you to my husband and my brother, to my other friends and family members, to my colleagues in ministry and to the sisters in my Sunday school class for your willingness to dialogue, to speak your minds and to add rich perspectives to mine. 

I must say before I say anything else that I am the mother of a black son. When he was a young child — precious, cute and full of mischief — he was dearly loved by all who knew him. We raised him in a modest house in a black neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. Racism’s ugly head did not take long to rise up in his protected world.

“Why do you look so blackish?”  — An elementary school teacher

“Why are your parents white?”  — A question he was asked numerous times

Just words. Not all that hurtful. But in his teenage years, the hurt began. We never knew about it until one day he told us in one of our rare conversations. This conversation actually went beyond, “Tell me about your day.”  “It was fine.” Period. That was it. End of conversation. But on this one day, we sat together and talked for quite a long time, and this is what our son told us.

The police stop me all the time. I’m not speeding or doing anything. They just stop me, especially when Andraé, Mark and Jarrett are with me. They pull us out of the car and push us to the ground head-first, with our legs and arms spread out on the hot concrete. Everybody who passes by can see us and they don’t know we weren’t doing anything wrong. While one of the police watch us so we don’t move, the other one searches the car. There’s never anything in the car except our basketball stuff.

I was furious. Beyond furious! Luckily it was night and offices were closed, but the next morning I gathered every ounce of my white privilege and headed first to see the Little Rock Chief chief of police and after that, the Mayor, both colleagues and friends. “Privilege” — white privilege and connection privilege — got me into their offices immediately. You see, I trained law enforcement and district attorneys from all over the counry including in our city. I chaired the Little Rock Commission on Domestic Violence and the Little Rock Commission on Children, Youth and Families. I served on the Little Rock Prevention, Intervention and Treatment Grant Committee, approving grants and dispensing funds to community programs. 

I taught classes every week to inmates incarcerated at the Pulaski County Detention Center and to young people at the Pulaski County Juvenile Detention Center. I was president of the board of the Arkansas Coalition against Sexual Assault, executive director of our Children’s Justice and Protection Center and I was involved in the courts as a certified child forensic interviewer. I served on the FBI’s Task Force on Sexual and Domestic Violence, on the Sixth Judicial District Sexual Abuse Management Team, on the Pulaski County Multidisciplinary Child Abuse Team and on the Arkansas Women’s Health Workgroup.

So I walked into those offices with a boatload of privilege, and it shames me and breaks my heart to say that, because even in my conversations with city officials that day, I knew my privilege spoke for me. I was the WHITE mother of a black son and I was totally connected in the criminal justice system system. So would a black mother of a black son have received such wide- open doors to the system?

I don’t think so is my honest answer and I say that with the most sincere regret and the shame of being a part of an oppressive system. Yes, it is true that my presence within that system may have made it less oppressive. Nonetheless, I was in there working, making it function, contributing to its survival and thus, condoning its oppressive acts by my  involvement and my tacit sanction.

This is a story about living with the sins of the past, about watching a shocking, scandalous, shameful video in which a black man cries out, “I can’t breathe!” and knowing that you have done nothing to end such blatant injustice. There are now so many names that we don’t even remember, and the more recent ones that we do remember, the ones that strike close to home for me:

Trayvon Martin

Philando Castille

Ahmaud Arbery

Breonna Taylor 

Tamir Rice 

Stephon Clark

Eric Garner

George Floyd

I can’t begin to say every name, but I want to end with this one:

Bradley Blackshire

Bradley’s mother, Kimberly Blackshire-Lee, was in my classes at the Pulaski County Detention Center. Over time, she became a dear friend and colleague. Kimberly works as a substance abuse counselor at Phoenix Recovery Centers of Arkansas.

Her son, Bradley, was killed on February 22, 2020 by a Little Rock police officer who fired his gun through Bradley’s windshield 16 times.

May they all, and the ones whose names are not here, rest in peace, and may their memories be eternal.

In July of 2014, a cellphone video captured some of Eric Garner’s final words as New York City police officers sat on his head and pinned him to the ground on a sidewalk: “I can’t breathe.” On May 25 of this year, the same words were spoken by George Floyd, who pleaded for release as an officer knelt on his neck and pinned him to the ground on a Minneapolis street until he died.

“I can’t breathe!” I can’t forget those words. I won’t forget those words. This morning, although I have already hundreds of words here, I can say in honesty , I have no words. At least I have no words that mean much in these horrific days.

I have tears. I have sadness. I even have some anger that the people I love whose skin is not “white” are living in grief, frustration, bewilderment, anger. Once again, the system has betrayed them. I say only that right now, injustice and oppression clings so closely to my friends, today and in centuries past.

One of my close Little Rock friends posted these words this week. I hear her. I hear my dear friend cry out for justice. I hear her using words to make sense of it all, and I hear her voice, and every voice, fall silent.

Silent, with just these words posted by my friend, “I’m tired.”

I want to see her face to face. I want to be together. I want to comfort her, hoping beyond hope that it is not too late for comfort.

After responding to her post, I happened to read this horrific headline:

Prosecutors in Hennepin County, Minnesota, say evidence shows Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was non-responsive.   — ABC News

“I’m tired!”  “I can’t breathe.”

“I Can’t Breathe!” — the title of  Transforming Injustice! — Watercolor #1 of a series.

Musings on Unfaith

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Unfaith! Such an unsettling word that may well describe where we sometimes find ourselves! I am certain that unfaith applies to me, to the times when my soul is troubled, to the seasons when my faith becomes small. Unfaith most definitely takes over in my heart at times, and in those times, my journey is a struggle. So I battle against unfaith, all the while simply wanting to understand it. This is my truth: I fight unfaith, praying to be rid of it, writing down my emotions around it, reading my Bible when I cannot live with unfaith another minute. My skirmish with unfaith often leads me to the words of the Psalmist.

In yesterday’s struggle with unfaith, I happened upon Psalm 73. It is a rather lengthy Psalm, as Psalms go, and it spends a great deal of time describing wicked people. I rushed through it, I think, because I was searching for inspiring words about unfaith and because I all already know a lot about wicked people. I can, in fact, describe wicked people almost as passionately as does the Psalmist. On top of that, my description of wicked people often includes some choice and inappropriate words.

I plowed on through the Psalm when, out of the blue, one particular verse “hit me upside the head!” (That’s southern slang!) Verse 14 came much too close to my soul. It described my emotions and showed me myself.

All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

— Psalm 73:14 NIV

Oh my! There it is: a succinct statement that so fully reflects what I had been feeling for the past week. It is unpleasant to read, as if it is stating my disconcerting reality and then forcing me to ask myself a question I would rather avoid. Still, I dare to ask myself — “So what are you going to do about your current state?” — knowing that I will likely not have an immediate answer nor a reassuring one. Sometimes I think that all of my feelings and responses come from my unfaith.

I should give you the backdrop for my Psalm 73 experience. I have felt unwell for several days — unrelenting fatigue, deep muscle aches, shortness of breath, trembling, hand tremors and several other troubling symptoms. The reality is that since my kidney transplant in November, I have been plagued with less than perfect health and a very compromised immune system.

Last week, my immunosuppressant medication dosage was increased, something I always dread because I know the distress that usually follows. This time, the side-effects seem worse than they have ever been. I struggle with the reality that so many parts of my body are just not working normally and despair is one of my recurring feelings, despair that, on most days, I have to fight against.

I have learned that I can fight against despair and that often I must. Despair does a number on the soul and spirit, on the place where my emotions live. So, yes, I can fight it, but the fight is exhausting. I can stand courageously and face off with despair. At times, I can even rise above it, but the encounter leaves me deep-down weary.

As for my spirit? Well, my spirit constantly searches for God’s comfort, for holy relief and answers to my questions. I try to attend to my spiritual health, as well as my emotional and physical health, often without much success. I sometimes experience God as a comforter who is far away. I do not often hear God’s voice, and I am not one to beg God for healing. Is all of this struggle because of my unfaith?

I have shared far more confession and self-revelation than anyone needs to hear. I do it because sometimes I believe that release might come if I can give voice to my pain and discouragement, if I can own my weariness and tell my story. Telling is not a quick-fix miracle cure, but telling another person how I feel gives me an extra measure of strength and resolve. And telling all of you who read my blog always means that many of you will offer prayers for me.

After sharing with you that I sometimes feel distant from God, this morning I caught an unexpected glimpse of God. It was just a tiny glimpse, though it was also a comforting, healing glimpse. I caught a glimpse of God in the place I find God most often — through the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is my go-to place when I find myself so weary that I feel as if I cannot take another step.

Selected passages from Isaiah 40 and 41:

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

— Isaiah 41:10,13 NIV

For some reason, I felt an urging to read Psalm 73 again. As I read it again, I found a clear and enduring declaration of God’s presence that rings so true to me on my best days.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
 and my portion forever.

—Psalm 73:23-26 NIV

This is the spiritual place I want to be — the place where I know that God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever — in spite of pain, in spite of discomfort, in spite of uncertainty, in spite of the life reality that my questions will not always have answers, in spite of my unfaith. I am convinced that unfaith is always with us like “a thorn in the flesh,” an ever-present oppressor, a silent demon that steals into the soul. But I am even more certain that, along with unfaith, there is pure and true faith. Perhaps we cannot know abiding faith without also knowing the disconcerting seasons of unfaith.

So these are my musings about unfaith, prompted by a Psalm. Isn’t that just like God, though, offering me a grace gift by gently guiding me through a Psalm that reaffirms God’s protection? Isn’t that like God, to freely give me reassuring grace? Isn’t it just like God, to give me the gift of presence, a gift freely given to me even when I doubt, even when I am struggling with a season of unfaith?

Thanks be to God for the epiphany that, in my heart and soul, faith has most assuredly come, though bringing unfaith with it. Thanks be to God for this insight: that growing in faith means descending into my unfaith for as long as it takes for its oppressive darkness to give way to God’s wonderful light.

As I walked through this part of my faith journey, I could not help but remember the words of a hymn that declares that we are held by a firm foundation and, through words spoken by God, promises us protection, strength and grace.

* Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

In your quiet time, spend a few moments hearing this hymn as you worship with the congregation of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

*Author: George Keith 1787; R. Keen, 1787
Source: Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787
Copyright: Public Domain